Avedon at 100: Photos of Seduction

Seductive and detail-oriented, Richard Avedon could have been a successful director — and in fact, he was. From his beginnings in fashion to his development as a portraitist, his photography consisted of staged performances where he enthralled sitters with his charm.

Since his death in 2004, Avedon has hardly been forgotten. (Three of his gigantic “Murals” are currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Now, “Avedon 100,” an exhibition at Gagosian gallery in Chelsea marking the centenary of his birth, approaches his legacy — and his stagecraft — with a grab-bag randomness. Testifying to his appeal, an assortment of colleagues, friends, critics and celebrities — including Raf Simons, Wynton Marsalis and the photographers Rineke Dijkstra and Jeff Wall — each chose a favorite photograph for these gallery walls (220 prints in all).

In a bravura installation designed by Stefan Beckman, the pictures are organized thematically and theatrically. A wall-size mural of Allen Ginsberg with his conventional middle-class relatives faces off against one of Andy Warhol and habitués of the Factory — two luminaries of vanguard culture posing with very different families. Sometimes, only the informed will get the connection, as in juxtaposed portraits of the photographer Robert Frank and the artist June Leaf, who were husband and wife.

Subtle, too, is the placement of a group portrait from 1963 of the generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution alongside a formally dazzling portrait of Marian Anderson, who because of her race had been barred a generation earlier by the DAR from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Avedon had a lifelong commitment to the civil rights struggle, enriched by a close friendship with James Baldwin that dated back to their high school days. (His 1945 portrait of Baldwin is the earliest photo in the exhibition.) In 1963, he was photographing for the book, “Nothing Personal,” that he co-authored with Baldwin; and along with the DAR portrait — which is artfully composed around the women’s banded sashes but a bit predictable in displaying their air of privileged condescension — he photographed civil rights workers, who, also predictably, look resolute and stalwart. A stronger jolt is delivered by a close-up of the 106-year-old William Casby, born enslaved. With his unforgettable face, as stark as a mask, Casby exudes the look of fortitude and resilience that the photographer was after.

Avedon devalued his most original body of work — the on-location scenes in the 1940s and 50s displaying Parisian dresses — and demanded to be judged as an artist solely for his portraits.

“Portraiture is performance,” he wrote, candidly describing his creative process. “The point is that you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. ” He added, “All that you can do is to manipulate that surface — gesture, costume, expression — radically and correctly.”

The challenge is to bring to the surface something that is not boringly superficial. Avedon’s photographs are rarely boring, but they are almost always superficial. You feel you are watching people perform for him. In the fashion photos, that’s delightful. Sunny Harnett in a Grès gown leaning over a roulette wheel, young men swiveling their heads as a model in the New Look of Dior crosses the Place de la Concorde, Dovima standing in evening dress between two elephants — these could be scenes in a movie. Only occasionally do they hint at something deeper, such as when Avedon included the chains on the legs of the elephants at the Cirque d’Hiver, perhaps an oblique commentary on women bound by fashion’s demands. Unfortunately, that fertile period is underrepresented; there are too many run-of-the-mill, technically polished fashion photographs from later in Avedon’s career.

The exhibition opens with multiple images of Marilyn Monroe, cavorting for his camera in 1957 and montaged in a 1994 print. Monroe is a star performer, overshadowing similar montages Avedon made of Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, who lacked their predecessor’s halogen incandescence. After putting on a show, Monroe sat exhausted in the studio, and Avedon (with her tacit consent) took a final picture, the “sad Marilyn” portrait that is one of his best known. Because of her untimely death five years later, this picture is regarded as a more authentic self-expression. But is it? Or is it merely physical fatigue?

Avedon preferred to photograph people he did not know, hoping to establish in a photographic session “an intimacy with no past and no future,” comparable to “a sexual encounter with a stranger in a darkened room,” he told an interviewer (cited in Philip Gefter’s biography, “What Becomes a Legend Most”). He wanted something exciting but shallow. And that is what he got.

The worst instance of this approach — given its own room in the exhibition — is his project of 1979-84, “In the American West,” an ill-advised attempt to rival the achievement of his friend, Diane Arbus, who died in 1971. While Arbus envied Avedon’s commercial success and the polish of his prints, Avedon wished more gnawingly for the recognition that the cultural establishment accorded her artistry. But in choosing to portray in unforgiving detail an array of Westerners living on the margins and staring at the camera — oil field workers, drifters, a rattlesnake skinner — Avedon imitated Arbus’s style but could not replicate her probing psychological intelligence.

His most profound portraits are not of picked-up strangers, but of someone he had known all his life: his father, Jacob Israel Avedon. Jacob browbeat his son as a boy. Once a quasi-filial relationship was re-established years later, it crackled with tension. The son continued to feel deprived of his father’s love and respect.

With some difficulty, Avedon persuaded Jacob to sit for him, beginning in 1969 and continuing up to the elderly man’s death from cancer in 1973. At the start of the suite of seven images here, Jacob is in a suit and tie. By the end he is in a hospital gown. What distinguishes these photographs from virtually every other one in the exhibition is that Jacob is completely resistant to the famous Avedon charm. He regards his son with suspicion, defiance, anguish, ruefulness and fear. He knows that he is being used. With misgivings, he is permitting that manipulation. He is not acting. He is engaging in a painful interaction with a son who has never been quite the one he wanted. And both men know that now it is too late.

Weighted with a disturbing gravity, these are Avedon’s greatest portraits. They get at a human truth he usually avoided.

Avedon 100

Through July 7, Gagosian, 522 West 21st Street, Chelsea, 212-741-1717; gagosian.com.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the designer for the Richard Avedon exhibition at Gagosian. It is Stefan Beckman, not Adjaye Associates.

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